Wednesday, September 15, 2021

How it all started for the Queen of Crime

Remembering Agatha Christie’s writing roots on the anniversary of her birth

As a child, Agatha Christie
taught herself to read
Agatha Christie, who was to become the best-selling novelist of all time, was born Agatha Mary Clarissa Miller on 15 September 1890 in a district of Torquay in Devon.

Her arrival at the home of her parents, Ashfield, in Barton Road in Tor Mohun, took place 131 years ago today. Agatha became such a popular and successful novelist that even though we are now well into the 21st century, her books are still being purchased from shops and on line and are regularly borrowed from public libraries. New film and television adaptations of her wonderful stories are constantly being made and she remains the most translated individual author to this day.

Agatha was educated at home and even though her mother did not want her to learn to read until she was eight, Agatha had taught herself to read by the time she was five.

She enjoyed the children’s stories of her time by authors such as Edith Nesbit and Louisa M Alcott, but also read poetry and thrillers at a young age.

By the time she was 18 she was writing short stories herself and had learnt French from her governess, the family having spent time living in France. This was to come in useful when she invented her little Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. She also visited Cairo for three months with her mother, an experience she was to draw on later for some of her novels.

The latest edition of  Christie's 1920 debut novel
The latest edition of 
Christie's 1920 debut novel
It was during the First World War that she turned to writing detective stories while she was working in a hospital dispensary. She responded to a bet made with her sister Madge, who challenged her to try to write a good detective story, and she worked out the plot for her debut novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, while working at Torbay Hospital. She had recently completed the examination of the Society of Apothecaries and was able to put her newly acquired knowledge of poisons to good use.

Agatha was unsuccessful to begin with and suffered six consecutive rejections from publishers. If she’d given up at that point the world would never have had the huge body of work that has entertained so many millions of people over the years.

The turning point came for Agatha when her novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, was published in 1920, when she was 30 years of age, and she never looked back. She went on to write a total of 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections. She also wrote the world’s longest running play, The Mousetrap, which was performed in London’s West End  from 1952 to 2020, when the theatre had to be closed down because of Covid 19 restrictions.

Her novel And Then There Were None is one of the top-selling books of all time, with approximately 100 million copies sold.

Agatha was co-president of the elite Detection Club  from 1958 to her death in 1976. In the 1971 New Year Honours she was made Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

When her death was announced, two West End theatres, St Martin’s, where The Mousetrap was playing, and the Savoy, which was at the time staging Murder at the Vicarage, dimmed their outside lights in her honour.

Her novels have never gone out of print and are constantly being republished with new cover designs and in different formats.

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Saturday, September 4, 2021

Tragedy at Law

Legal mystery written 80 years ago is still enthralling readers today

Tragedy at Law has been in print continuously since 1942
Tragedy at Law has been in
print continuously since 1942
Regarded by many as the best English detective story set in the legal world, Tragedy at Law, by Cyril Hare, has never been out of print since it was first published by Faber and Faber in 1942.

Cyril Hare was the pen name for Alfred Alexander Gordon Clark, a barrister and judge, who was born on this day in 1900 in Mickleham in Surrey. Tragedy at Law was his fourth and best-known novel, in which he was able to draw on his legal knowledge and his experiences while working as a judge’s marshal at the beginning of World War II.

It introduces Francis Pettigrew, a not very successful barrister, who manages to solve the baffling mystery because of his exceptional knowledge of the law. The character was to live on in four other novels written by Hare.

Providing readers with a fascinating glimpse into the life of a judge just before the war, Tragedy at Law follows Mr Justice Barber, a High Court judge, as he moves from town to town presiding in cases at the courts of assize on the southern England circuit.

Barber takes with him an entourage of wife, butler, cook, clerk and marshal, who reside with him at his ‘lodgings’ in each town. He receives anonymous threatening letters, unpleasant items in parcels and there are attempts made on his life as he travels from place to place, despite him being constantly guarded by the police, his wife and his marshal.

Hare took his pseudonym from the legal chambers where he practised
Hare took his pseudonym from the
legal chambers where he practised
The novel is beautifully written with plenty of details about the lifestyle of a judge of assize and Hare keeps the reader guessing about the solution to the mystery right to the last page.

The writer’s pseudonym was derived from a mixture of Hare Court, where he was in Chambers as a barrister in London, and Cyril Mansions, where he lived.

Hare also wrote many short stories  for the London Evening Standard and some radio and stage plays and he was a keen member of the Detection Club.

After the war the novelist was appointed a county court judge in Surrey. He died in 1958, when he was at the peak of his career as a judge and at the height of his powers as a master of the whodunnit.

In 1990, when the British Crime Writers’ Association published their list of The Top 100 Crime Novels of All Time, they awarded the 85th place to Cyril Hare's Tragedy at Law.

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